Unequal Burdens: the unintended consequences of California’s climate policies

Matt Artz

Unequal Burdens: the unintended consequences of California’s climate policies

California has emerged as the undisputed leader in climate change action in the United States, committing to ambitious emissions targets and 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045. Despite this progress, new research has found that California’s signature climate program, cap-and-trade, exacerbated historical environmental injustices in its first years of operation.

Cushing L, Blaustein-Rejto D, Wander M, Pastor M, Sadd J, et al. (2018) Carbon trading, co-pollutants, and environmental equity: Evidence from California’s cap-and-trade program (2011–2015). PLOS Medicine 15(7): e1002604. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002604

In California, a research team set out to determine the effects of one of the nation’s most lauded climate policies on local air quality. The resulting scientific paper, led by Dr. Lara Cushing of the University of California Berkeley, concludes that California’s cap-and-trade program negatively affected air quality in disadvantaged neighborhoods, even as it lowered cumulative greenhouse gas emissions.

Cap-and-trade programs like the one implemented in California limit the amount of planet-warming gases that power plants, refineries, and other facilities can release into the atmosphere. To understand how this type of program can affect local air quality, it is helpful to first look at how the program reduces emissions. Under cap-and-trade, facilities can buy or sell “allowances,” which are permits to emit certain amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide. If a facility reduces its emissions lower than it needs to, the facility can sell its extra allowances to other facilities that haven’t yet reduced their emissions.

Addressing climate change doesn’t require cutting emissions at every facility — only at enough facilities such that total emissions will decline over time. One ton of carbon dioxide from a power plant in Los Angeles and one ton of carbon dioxide from a refinery in the Central Valley contribute equally to global climate change. On the other hand, whether the power plant next door to a neighborhood reduces or increases its emissions has very real effect on a the neighborhood’s health.

Since the program allows facilities to trade allowances, emissions have gone up at some facilities and down at others. Using data collected by the state of California, Cushing and her colleagues determined that in the first three years of the cap-and-trade program, emissions increased at 52% of facilities. Cushing and her colleagues also determined that, as greenhouse gas emissions increased, emissions of co-pollutants like particulate matter and air toxics increased as well.

With a clearer picture of how emissions changed under California’s signature climate program, Cushing and her colleagues then looked at the neighborhoods surrounding regulated facilities. They found that facilities covered by the cap-and-trade program were disproportionally located near disadvantaged communities. For example, 92% of disadvantaged communities had five or more facilities within a 2.5-mile radius, while 81% of ‘not disadvantaged’ communities were more than 2.5 miles from such facilities.

Since polluting facilities are often located in disadvantaged communities and more than half of regulated facilities increased emissions in the first two years of the program, disadvantaged communities bore the brunt of additional pollution. The neighborhoods hit hardest had higher proportions of low-income, non-English speaking residents, and people of color compared to other neighborhoods. These findings will come as no surprise to environmental justice advocates, as vulnerable communities have long borne the brunt of environmental injustices.

Unfortunately, the same Californians who suffered under the cap-and-trade program are also those who will suffer most from the effects of climate change. While the California plan reinvests 25% of cap-and-trade revenue in disadvantaged communities to address air quality concerns, public health experts and environmental groups have argued this isn’t enough. Climate policies must strive to thoughtfully balance competing priorities.

The research conducted by Cushing and her colleagues has important implications for future climate policy proposals. It pushes back on the idea that climate change policies always improve air quality. However, instead of eschewing carbon trading schemes altogether, the researchers recognize that fine tuning such policies can have enormous benefits for disadvantaged communities. In this case, the authors suggest lowering the cap on total emissions, increasing the price of allowances in highly polluted areas, or incentivizing companies to invest in local projects that have air quality and health benefits.

While the findings of Cushing and her colleagues can be discouraging, they also offer a ray of hope. Since polluting facilities are disproportionally located in disadvantaged communities, these communities experience the most to gain from just and effective climate policies that tackle greenhouse gas emissions and local air quality concerns.  

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